Once India had a liberal city called Bombay. Its businessmen were cannier than those of the rest of socialist India, its rich more cosmopolitan, its cricketers more flamboyant. Bombay’s was a relatively pluralistic tradition, too. In faraway Calcutta, India’s British colonizers had spent the nineteenth century creating a paternalistic seat of empire with heavy-handed imitations of English buildings. In Bombay, on the other hand, prosperous native businessmen collaborated with their foreign masters to create a port city whose architecture amalgamated, with appropriate symbolism, European and Indian styles. Well into the 1990s it was possible to explain, as many did, the incidence of the city’s poverty and corruption as the natural concomitants of Bombay’s commercial dynamism. Compared with other places on the subcontinent, India’s most complex city, its window on the world, was still considered a fine place to be.

Now, India has an ugly, disturbing shrine city called Mumbai. It is a Hindu shrine, since the diverse, generally tolerant religion practiced by four out of five Indians has acquired a venomous political identity in the very city where religious minorities like the Muslims, the Jains, and the Parsees have tended to do best. Officially, Bombay turned into Mumbai in 1996, when the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Maharashtra decided to rename the state capital in the Marathi vernacular. But the context for this semantic shuffle was a rejection of the secular, universalist values espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To many residents of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai was born at the moment that this rejection reached its climax: December 6, 1992.

That was the day that Hindu chauvinists defied the central government in Delhi and tore down the Babri Mosque, a north Indian mosque that had been built, Hindus believe, on the site of the birthplace of Rama, a revered deity. The mosque’s destruction gave rise to bloody fighting between Hindus and Muslims in towns across north India. Despite lying 750 miles southwest of the Babri Mosque, Bombay was the worst affected. For five days that December and fifteen days the following month, intercommunal rioting between Hindus and Muslims cost the lives of some 900 people in Bombay, two thirds of them from the Muslim minority community and more than 350 of them killed by the security forces. Barely a month later, ten explosions, allegedly the work of Dawood Ibrahim, the city’s top Muslim gang boss—“Mumbai’s Al Capone”—evened the score. The final toll: 1,217 dead, 2,036 injured.

Even now, many Mumbaikars wonder how their city could have succumbed to a sectarian nationalism that is anathema to its traditional mercantile sophistication. After all, the millions who immigrate here do so in search of rupees: from the upstate migrants churning out T-shirts in suburban sweatshops to Tamil entrepreneurs bent over the ledgers of compact little businesses; from the eunuch prostitutes touting for business in Falkland Road to the north Indian Muslims manning the fruit stalls of Bhendi Bazaar. Six years after the riots, it may look like business as usual on the narrow, tense thoroughfare that divides a Muslim-majority district from its predominantly Hindu neighbor. But not since thousands followed the quintessential Bombay Muslim, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when he left India to become Pakistan’s first governor general in 1947 has communal identity in the city been so self-conscious. In the fashionable apartment blocks of south Mumbai, well-heeled Hindus may wish their affluent Muslim neighbors Eid Mubarak at the end of Ramadan, but you will look in vain for a Khan, a Khoreishi, or an Ansari among the brass nameplates on lobby walls. Removed by Muslims fearful for their lives during the riots, they have yet to be replaced. “On the surface everything seems normal,” says one Koran-seller, “but we are seething.”


The campaign to dismantle the Babri Mosque was not a new one; nor was its chief political proponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a particularly original variant on the handful of Hindu nationalist parties that have been part of India’s political landscape since independence. By the late 1980s, however, the conditions had arisen that would allow Hindu nationalism to shift to the center of India’s political life. Nehru’s Congress Party was committed to redistribution of wealth and reducing caste privilege, but it was exhausted by more than forty years of almost uninterrupted power and had grown corrupt and brittle. A nascent Hindu middle class, patriotic and devout, rejected the Congress and other parties of the left as beholden to the lower castes and religious minorities. After Pakistan-backed Muslims in disputed Jammu and Kashmir stepped up their violent campaign for self-determination, the BJP emerged as a champion of both Indian military superiority and high-caste Hindu thrift. It combined woolly themes like self-sufficiency with fierce belligerence on the mosque issue and toward Pakistan. Still, it took a full five years after the Babri Mosque fell before the BJP finally shed its political untouchability. Only after last year’s parliamentary elections, when the BJP emerged the strongest party in Delhi’s parliament, did Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party leader, succeed in forming the coalition government that currently runs India.


A little over a year later, Mr. Vajpayee’s job is looking tougher than ever. In particular, the prime minister is having difficulty explaining to his more secular-minded coalition partners the BJP’s enduring links with several shady, neofascist Hindu organizations. In January, for example, an outcry both at home and abroad forced him to order a judicial inquiry into the deaths of an Australian Christian missionary and his two children, allegedly at the hands of one such group, the Bajrang Dal. But for the political relationship that most embarrasses the prime minister, we must look back to Mumbai, to India’s least amiable demagogue: Balasaheb K. Thackeray, a sometime political cartoonist who decided to go into politics and succeeded beyond expectations.

When Mr. Thackeray founded his Shiv Sena party in 1966, he reckoned that the name of Shivaji—a seventeenth-century king from modern-day Maharashtra, who won striking military successes against Muslim invaders—would give added support to his campaign against the south Indians who exerted such influence over the Mumbai economy. By the mid-1980s, however, Mr. Thackeray had decisively associated his ailing party with the rising power of Hindu nationalism and the same warrior king became synonymous with another sort of bigotry. By then, the Shiv Sena had acquired a reputation as a kind of sectarian Salvation Army, providing social services for Hindus of different castes. But Mr. Thackeray’s 40,000 sainiks—his warriors, who are expected to have the disciplined dedication that the word implies—proved to be adept brownshirts, too. According to the findings of an independent inquiry conducted by B.N. Shrikrishna, a High Court judge (and devout Hindu), the Shiv Sena “took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims” during the 1992-1993 riots. As for Mr. Thackeray, he “commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks…like a veteran general.”

The Shiv Sena bloodied its hands, but Mr. Thackeray’s change of emphasis worked; he went from a bit player to the dominant personality in Maharashtran politics. In the 1995 assembly elections, the Shiv Sena confidently joined forces with the BJP and captured the state government from a jaded and discredited Congress. No matter that some BJP leaders, especially those in Mr. Vajpeyee’s government, now regard Mr. Thackeray as an embarrassment; although they rebuke him, they have not dared to ditch him, for the BJP’s electoral prospects in Maharashtra would suffer without the Shiv Sena’s support. As for the Shiv Sena leader himself, he holds no office in the state government, but boasts of running Maharashtra extra-constitutionally from his well-guarded house in the suburbs. An inveterate braggart, on such occasions he is not exaggerating.

A good illustration of the power exerted by this well-connected artist—at least one US diplomatic envoy has sat for him—was provided this January, when Mr. Thackeray successfully demanded the resignation of Manohar Joshi, Maharashtra’s chief minister since 1995. According to some political analysts in Mumbai, the outgoing chief minister had fallen from favor by failing to make good on a series of ambitious Shiv Sena promises: free housing for four million Mumbai slum dwellers and free electricity for farmers in different parts of the state. The latter was a pledge the excitable Mr. Thackeray had made without consulting his minister of power.

Ask BJP members of the government, however, and they will tell you that Mr. Thackeray was determined to punish Mr. Joshi for doing nothing to prevent the arrest of fourteen sainiks discovered ransacking the headquarters of India’s cricket board in protest over the Delhi government’s refusal to cancel a test series against Pakistan—a sporting encounter that Hindu nationalists found offensive, in view of Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir. Whatever the cause, it is unlikely that Mr. Joshi’s departure had anything to do with his being implicated in an official investigation into the illegal allotment of a chunk of public land. After all, his swiftly appointed successor, Narayan Rane, was once named by police as a conspirator in the murder of an opposition Congress Party worker. State cabinet ministers like Pramod Navalkar smile bleakly when asked about Mr. Joshi’s departure. “We are the last to know the reason for such things,” he told me. “We are loyal only to Mr. Thackeray and we accept what he says.” And there he stopped. One of Mr. Rane’s first actions as chief minister has been to instruct his ministers to keep away from the press.

For all Mr. Thackeray’s impatience with Mr. Joshi, the outgoing chief minister—who departed with the pious assertion that he had fallen on his sword “like a disciplined sainik“—was generous to his boss. Mr. Joshi saw to it that a large number of criminal and civil suits filed against Mr. Thackeray and other senior sainiks were dropped; he scrapped the State Minorities Commission—a statutory body given to needling the Shiv Sena—and publicly denounced the findings of the Shrikrishna report. Even though the report identifies in Mumbai’s 38,000-strong police force “an inbuilt bias against the Muslims,” all but one of the officers it accuses of crimes like “looting…rioting” and “utter dereliction of duty” during the riots remain on the beat.


In common with other neofascist parties, the Sena thrives on political agitations that often take the form of mass protests. Perhaps inevitably, four years of power have blunted the party’s ability to disrupt. It can no longer organize citywide strikes that were once exhilarating to their Sena followers. Nevertheless, the Shiv Sena can still have fun in the guise of guardian of public morals, particularly when it targets independent-minded filmmakers from Bollywood, the city’s influential movie industry.

With an output of some 120 films a year, Bollywood contributes heavily to the Mumbai economy. Nevertheless, its power did not stop Mr. Thackeray last year when he organized attacks by (mostly female) sainiks on one of two Mumbai theaters that were showing Fire, Bollywood’s first exploration of lesbian romance—which the Shiv Sena leader denounced as “alien to Indian culture.” The police were nowhere to be seen when Mr. Thackeray’s acolytes smashed windows and tore down posters at the Cinemax Theatre, where the film was playing to a packed house; nor were they when similar attacks took place the following day in three more Indian cities. In Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune, and Surat, Fire’s run came to an enforced end.

The Sena does not, however, need such violence to collect more money. When the Mumbai-based Times of India introduced forty-five-year-old Mr. Rane, a teetotaling ex-bar owner, to its readers, the paper drew flattering attention to the new chief minister’s “ability to raise funds for the party.” When I talked with lesser sainiks in Mumbai this winter, it soon became clear that the Shiv Sena is extremely good at persuading Mumbai businessmen to pay for the merry-go-round of rallies, religious spectacles, and extravagant shows of philanthropy that have demonstrably tied the party to Mumbai public life. “Not hapta, you understand, but dan.” Not extortion, but donations. One talkative resident of a Shiv Sena-controlled district disagreed. “Businessmen where I come from are told to pay up to $25,000 if one of the big festivals is being planned.” According to one former member of that now defunct minorities commission, “The reason why certain Muslim-owned hardware stores in central Mumbai were not attacked during the riots is that their owners had paid protection money to the Shiv Sena.”

Whatever the fund-raising methods used by Mr. Rane, taxi drivers working the blue-chip route into Mumbai from the city’s domestic airport fear that his appointment will increase the amount they have to pay the party—especially in the months before next spring’s assembly elections. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to portray the Shiv Sena as the only recipient of untaxed rupees in Mumbai, still less as the sole reason why middle- and upper-class Mumbaikars have come to fear for their wealth. The other specialists in menacing people for money are a group which has thrived in connivance with cooperative politicians, policemen, and, latterly, cash-strapped Bollywood producers: the Mumbai mob.

Spend a little time in Mumbai and it seems appropriate that it should have earned a reputation as India’s hard currency laundromat; this, after all, is the sort of place where millionaires with offshore accounts encourage the exteriors of their sumptuously appointed apartments to crumble, the better to escape the attentions of gangsters and tax inspectors. Before the Congress government of the early 1990s nudged India into piecemeal free trade policies, Mumbai’s underworld survived on the proceeds from sales of smuggled Scotch and gold. Blade-toting “brothers”—the dons, in local parlance—competed to intimidate the throne-holders of the “license permit Raj,” a labyrinthine system of patronage in which hugely profitable stakes in local industries were effectively auctioned to cronyish conglomerates. According to the police, once tariff reductions had slashed the profitability of these pursuits, the attention of dons like Mr. Ibrahim and Arun Gawli, a lesser rival, turned to the international trade in Pakistan-produced heroin. Even then, though, the Mafia remained at one remove from the lives of most normal citizens. The 1993 bomb blasts changed that.

The explosions that half-gutted Mumbai landmarks like the stock exchange and Air India buildings heralded the split into factions, along Hindu-Muslim lines, of the city’s hitherto secular-minded underworld. When the police announced that they had found Karachi markings on the packages used for transporting the explosives responsible for the blasts, Mr. Ibrahim—well known as the top Mafia boss and already regarded as an avenging angel by terrorized Mumbai Muslims—was branded a Pakistani agent, and accused of running his narcotics ring in partnership with Pakistan’s secret service. Hindu lieutenants of Mr. Ibrahim broke away to form rival “loyalist” gangs. Meanwhile, the soaring price of prime residential and commercial property in south Mumbai had encouraged the brothers to take up speculation. According to Shiv Anandan, a joint police commissioner, Bollywood, too, “has been completely infiltrated by crime.” No wonder the gangs are in the midst of a grand turf war.

The war has not merely affected the dons, their immediate entourage, and a handful of crooked businessmen. In humble Muslim neighborhoods like Nagpada, where Mr. Ibrahim’s sister lives and Ibrahim men collect the dan, unemployed Muslim youths readily deliver packages of heroin for ten dollars, a princely sum; a trash-picker living in one of Mumbai’s 40,000-odd chawls, the one-room tenements built to serve workers in the inner city’s now defunct textile mills, might slit a tenant’s throat for little more than one hundred dollars. What is more, the murderer could well be risking capital punishment merely to settle a dispute over the right to occupy a miserable flat.

To the police, the pattern is familiar. Thanks to Mumbai’s anachronistic rent controls, rents of as little as five dollars per month are not unknown for the kind of apartment that has a market value of $750,000. Not surprisingly, in such cases, the landlord generally wants his tenant evicted. According to a senior Mumbai policeman, “Rather than wait fifteen years [the time it would take for his eviction suit to reach Mumbai’s logjammed courts], the frustrated landlord might ask the brothers to get rid of the tenant.” Meanwhile, the terrified wives of Mumbai’s millionaires have begun wearing “American” (fake) jewelry to the season’s fanciest weddings. And once the driver has parked the family Mercedes outside the colonial-era club hired for the event, a fee will change hands to ensure that it escapes “modification.”

This, then, is the Mumbai of the 1990s. It would be easy to shovel all the responsibility for its grim evolution onto Bal Thackeray. But even when it comes to relations between Hindus and Muslims, this would not be accurate. In December 1992 and January 1993, after all, gutless and oppor- tunistic Congress governments were in control in both New Delhi and Mumbai. Now, in Chagan Bhujbal, the Congress Party in Maharashtra has a leader who not only rose to prominence as one of Mr. Thackeray’s most outspoken sainiks, but once introduced such spleen into a speech on minorities that the speaker of the assembly ordered his obscenities expunged from the record.

Equally, state Congress leaders share—along with the Shiv Sena—responsibility for Mumbai’s flourishing criminal culture. The rot set in under the previous, more subtly pro-Hindu Congress government. Even now, Mumbai police say that brothers like Arun Gawli (not to mention his political party) have been supported by senior Congress politicians. Likewise, it is worth recalling the role played by Mumbai’s conservative Islamic clergy in the emergence, since the riots, of a sullen isolationism among Mumbai Muslims, whether Sunni, Shi’ite, or members of the heterodox Bohri community. From record numbers of Mecca-bound pilgrims to the prospering trade in burqas—the all-concealing garb that forcefully symbolizes a woman’s submission to the tenets of the Koran—the prevailing religiosity does not bode well for hopes of a revival of religious tolerance.

Nor can the Shiv Sena be entirely blamed for the recent downturn in Mumbai’s economy. Foreign investors have been scared off by criminality and the Sena’s sharply nationalistic rhetoric, but a sharp dip in most Indian GNP growth projections is also responsible. Nor is Mr. Thackeray exclusively responsible for the plight of the city’s slum dwellers—some 4.5 million out of a population of around 11 million. True, his scheme to provide land for commercial development to those who were also prepared to build housing for the poor collapsed along with property prices in 1997. But the record of previous Congress governments was little better. The best way of upgrading slums—transfer the deeds to the slum dwellers themselves, giving them an incentive to improve their own housing—presents complicated legal obstacles and therefore little opportunity for short-term electoral benefit. It also denies property magnates the chance to develop the land in question for commercial use and so runs into powerful opposition. In the late 1980s, some 22,000 families obtained title deeds for land on which they were squatting, but this scheme was discontinued well before the Shiv Sena came to power.

Still, it is hard to find an aspect of Mumbai’s civic life that the Shiv Sena has changed for the better, or a problem it has not—often willfully—made worse. Since successive central governments in New Delhi have declined to dismiss the Maharashtra government, it falls to those liberal-minded, articulate Mumbaikars—the city’s cultural elite, and its more enlightened industrialists—to lead a countercharge against the communalists and the brothers. What are these people doing?


One way to answer this question is to take the Juhu Road north from the island city, past pristine Chowpatty Beach, its new cleanliness a rare instance of administrative competence, past Shivaji Park—where Sachin Tendulkar, nowadays reckoned the finest cricketer in the world, played as a boy, and where Mr. Thackeray addresses his supporters in whimsical Marathi. Clear Mumbai’s international airport and its dank surrounds of slum and chawl, and you have reached Mumbai’s—and therefore India’s—most visible symbol of liberal-minded hedonism. If you have read Shobha De’s novel Starry Nights, you will know something about the heady life of the world’s most prolific movie industry. This is its headquarters: Bollywood.

Every day, around ten million Indians buy a movie ticket. In 1996, when a public television channel showed Sholay (The Flames), the most famous Bollywood movie of all, some quarter of a billion Indians watched. Such statistics illustrate the fascination that the movies exert over Indians—a hold rivaled only by cricket. Bollywood’s favorite genre is the musical melodrama, in which the heroine, her sari often tantalizingly soaked by an unseasonal shower, is rescued by her muscular beau, accompanied by a thunderous score. By popularizing the Hindi language, Bollywood has helped to unify India’s multilingual society, all the while addressing a diaspora which extends from Toronto to Kuala Lumpur. Not surprisingly, when Bollywood speaks, the rest of India listens.

It has interesting things to say, too. Bollywood has, to an extent unthinkable in other parts of Indian life, dispensed with the traditional preoccupation with caste and religious identity. At present, three male leads can command the colossal sum of $300,000 per picture; all are Pathan Muslims surnamed Khan. From the veteran Dilip Kumar to character actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Bollywood is hugely indebted to Muslim talent. (Too indebted, whispers Shobha De, a convent-educated Brahman who suspects the industry of an Islamic conspiracy.) Even M.F. Hussein, India’s immensely popular Muslim painter, is currently making his maiden movie. Mr. Hussein does not seem like someone who would be intimidated by the chauvinists; his nude representation of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom, was once burned by them. Rallying behind a celebrity like Mr. Hussein, you might think that the Bollywood leaders could take on the Shiv Sena, and even win.

In fact, they don’t. The gap between such expectations and reality are neatly illustrated by the fate of a petition protesting the Shiv Sena’s violent response to Fire and signed by a handful of big Bollywood names. Ms. Azmi, the film’s heroine, praised the petition as “very significant.” But the outspoken few have received very little support from their peers. When the house of Mr. Kumar, one of the signers, was surrounded by hostile sainiks wearing nothing but their underpants—a gesture designed to underscore the film’s immodesty—the actor’s only support was “some sporadic telephone calls adding up to not very much.” Mahesh Bhatt, a director who signed the petition, describes the reaction of other Bollywood big shots as one of “apathy and cowardice.”

For an illustration of the servility with which Bollywood has bowed to a philosophy inimical to its own, consider the January opening of a much-hyped show of political caricatures by Raj Thackeray, the nephew of the Shiv Sena leader and a potential heir to the throne. Exhaustively promoted by the supposedly secular-minded Times of India, which devoted three laudatory articles—each more craven than the last—to the exhibition, the show was lent luster by the presence of some of the biggest names in Bollywood. Amitabh Bacchan, star of Sholay and probably the most revered living Indian; Madhuri Dixit, the quintessential Bollywood siren in the 1990s; and Shobha De, the Western press’s favorite liberated Indian female—all were there. Most noteworthy of all, however, was the presence of M.F. Hussein, whose portrait of Saraswati had been torched by Hindu nationalists. No wonder Mr. Hussein is regarded as something of a turncoat among the Muslims of Bombay.

The Thackeray exhibition illustrates an important truth about Mumbai. From US-educated industrialists to the most urbane of Bollywood stars, the elite of the city has decided that it pays to get on with the Shiv Sena. Few of Mumbai’s powerful conglomerates have dared to fall out publicly with the Hindu chauvinists. Javed Akhtar, a Bollywood lyric-writer and Urdu poet, likens Bollywood’s reluctance to confront the Shiv Sena to the reaction of a frog dropped into a pan of water on a stove. “If the water is boiling, the frog will naturally leap out,” he says. “But put the frog into cold water and turn on the stove, and you end up with poached frog.”

Still, there are signs that Maharashtran voters in general may be getting fed up. In last year’s general election, they gave the Shiv Sena and the BJP a beating, returning just ten Hindu nationalist deputies from a total of forty-eight constituencies across the state—a significant dip from the thirty-four held by the Shiv Sena and BJP in the previous parliament. More encouraging still, Mr. Thackeray’s posturing against the Pakistani cricket tour and the screening of Fire were poorly received by many Mumbaikars, who take a dim view of political interference in their two chief passions. In March of 2000, when Maharashtrans elect a new state assembly, the chauvinists may well be out on their ear. With the Congress’s Mr. Bhujbal waiting in the wings, it seems unlikely that Mumbai will regain its former reputation as a socially cohesive city. A spell in opposition might even revitalize the Shiv Sena. In the meantime, the party is busy bleeding the city dry, as the traditions of tolerance and respect for the rule of law—essential if a place of this complexity is to survive and prosper—become quaint reminders of the past.

In some ways, Mumbai has lost its special status, laid low by problems of corruption and religious antagonism that afflict the rest of India. As the country embarks on its second half-century of independent life, the decline of the Congress and the receptivity of voters to Hindu majoritarianism has helped produce a set of politicians altogether different from one-nation secularists like Jawaharlal Nehru. In Bal Thackeray, Maharashtra has a state boss as unattractive as any other; in its Mafia, it has the most powerful criminal elite in Southeast Asia. As long as such men as these continue to stifle Mumbai’s traditional mercantile egalitarianism, there is little likelihood that much will change. If, however, liberal politics and responsible economics can somehow emerge—a very big “if”—the city would be ideally placed to lead an Indian recovery.

March 24, 1999

This Issue

April 22, 1999